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The Audacity of Spirit

Author(s): Jack Finnegan

ISBN13: 9781847300546

ISBN10: 1847300545

Publisher: Veritas

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  • What is spirituality? We all know the answer , or do we?
    In recent decades we have become more aware of the chameleon nature of this word. It has a huge range of meanings from a variety of perspectives: it is used in theology both ancient and modern, in psychology, in world religions and in disciplines as diverse as business, agriculture, medicine, art, astronomy, mathematics, not to mention the Christian journey and its exercises of virtue and striving, of reconciliation and compassion, of prayer, mysticism and liturgy. For all of Aristotles dictum that we are rational animals, we now know that we are all spiritual beings, even if we might not be able to express the spirituality which gives meaning to our existence.

    Jack Finnegan, a Salesian priest, who teaches both spirituality and psychology at the Milltown Institute, Dublin gives us a fascinating book that explores the whole area. Every paragraph has its own gems of insight and felicitous language. He steers us through traditional and post-modern writings so that we are challenged to new visions, but in such a way that we will not be afraid to let go of the narrower vision we will initially bring to reading this book. At the heart of the book Dr Finnegan sees spirituality in terms of a poetics.
  • Jack Finnegan

    Jack Finnegan, a Salesian priest, who teaches both spirituality and psychology at the Milltown Institute, Dublin gives us a fascinating book that explores the whole area. Every paragraph has its own gems of insight and felicitous language. He steers us through traditional and post-modern writings so that we are challenged to new visions, but in such a way that we will not be afraid to let go of the narrower vision we will initially bring to reading this book. At the heart of the book Dr Finnegan sees spirituality in terms of a poetics.

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    Both Dr Jack Finnegan and professor Ursula King [author of The Search for Spirituality] have in their own ways been on the forefront of developing spirituality as a coherent academic discipline in British and Irish universities over the past twenty years. In these two books we see the fruits of this work and can see the subtle differences in their approaches. Each autumn I teach a class on how we can talk about spirituality and what spirituality may mean. In this respect these two books are instructive and ones I will be recommending to my students, for they reveal that there is no one definitive answer to the question but that each of us must bring, out of the storeroom of our gifts to present the image and approach which best answers our spiritual_ needs. Thus, Finnegan, long involved in the nature of practical spirituality and with a deep interest in the nature of language, has at the heart of his book a significant essay on the poetics of spirituality which suggests that spirituality engages with the rhythms of an often repressed centre of orientation and creativity that lies beyond the human ego. Spirituality, for Finnegan is about a commitment of awareness which means using not just the intellective but the affective parts of the self to reach integration and wholeness. In this thesis he stands in the long line of Christian proponents of the theologia mystica, of which many of the most significant figures emerged from the Celtic lands of Northern Europe. Finnegan is a worthy successor to the tradition.

    King, on the other hand, uses her knowledge of other faiths to make arguments about the global nature of spirituality in all its manifestations. In contrast to Finnegan, King evokes a world of spirituality more akin to her great inspiration, the French Jesuit and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (its those Jesuits again). Kings vision may not be everyones cup of tea but there is no doubting the breadthand learning of her vision which is cosmic indeed. This is complemented by her subtle under-standing of spirituality and gender , whilst Finnegan confines himself to reflecting on the metaphoric value of the masculine and feminine in spirituality King prefers to link gender with spirit as a means to liberation leading to eco-feminism.

    So, two different approaches that share much common ground. For both authors, however, it is clear that the, search for spirituality is the search of our times and in many ways is defining this particular historical moment in world affairs. For, as Finnegan puts it, a society that suppresses or represses the spirit will lead to addictions, violence, narcissistic disorders, suicide, crime, child abuse of horrific proportions done by those with supposed faith and those with none. Yet, he writes, it is at such
    times that spirituality tends to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of disenchantment. In helping us to articulate the roots of this decline and possible paths of recovery both King and Finnegan are to be commended.

    - Peter Tyler, Christian Spirituality Chronicle, 2009

    `Spirituality is a way of being authentically and lovingly human in the whole web of meaning, creativity, freedom, responsibility, sociality and relationality that mark human life (p.83).
    `To live spirituality, to enter its deepest potentials and engage in a making is to become a poet ... a creator: a crafter of unprecedented melodies that open portals to possible worlds (p.93).

    These extracts bear the hallmarks of Finnegans understanding of spirituality, as expounded in The Audacity of Spirit, his new book published by Veritas. Drawing on a wide range of sources, he pre?¼sents a detailed study of the history, nature, context, condition and demonstrates the value of spirituality as that which gives meaning to human existence. To what end? That by being emboldened and envisioned to see, through the lens of the spiritual, the ultimate meaning lying beyond our narrow confines, transformation might be effected in us. Such a tantalising glimpse of ultimate, transformative meaning `begets a more creative and ethically conscious encounter with both self and reality (p.21). Spirituality, he argues, is far more than simply a way of understanding and interpreting the world, but is a whole way of being that arises from within and, much in the way that a poem finds its expression through the poet, is embodied in transformed human life.

    Jack Finnegan, Salesian priest, psychotherapist, writer and lecturer on contemporary spirituality at Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin, has given us a very important book, both for its comprehensiveness and for its a profound treatment of the subject matter. It more than adequately shows that spirituality, the spiritual, the soul and the spirit (names he uses interchangeably as well as dealing with separately under subheadings) are concerned with our ultimate being, as well as our purpose in and through a relationship to Being beyond ourselves. Finnegan then develops this bedrock of relationship to elucidate a spirituality that is concerned with our living in a particular way. In `choosing our uniquely true self we give meaning to our existence. This centrality of relationship is, for me, key to the success of the work. Living according to spirit is presented, by Finnegan, as exactly contrary to escapism. While institutional religions, East and West, are sometimes criticised for their other-worldly focus and spirituality is generally assumed to be a private matter, an assumption supported by modem individualism, Finnegan argues that the core of spirituality is relationship, due to Gods authentic, Incarnational relationship with the world. But, if spirituality is to have weight and achieve its purpose, its communal reality found in its ecclesial base cannot be overlooked either. Finnegans reclaiming of spirituality as a public, embedded, transformative reality called to mind Metropolitan (Pergamon) John Zizioulas who (in his work The Church as Communion) drew on the old Latin phrase Unus Christianus nullus Christianus, `one Christian - no Christian to show that the way to God was through the neighbour. Inclusivity, embodiment and ethical responsibility are the prerequisites and defining characteristics of Christian spirituality and Finnegan is to be thanked for drawing our attention to these oft-overlooked attributes.

    At the heart of what Finnegan is attempting is pulling back the spiritual from the banalities, familiarities and spirit-less practice of dead devotions For him, living according to soul and spirit is the antidote to diminishment, consumerism and materialism. It is a re-writing of the age-old dilemma: God (a life-giving, unifying existence that is relational, joy-filled, and leads to ethically responsible engagement) or mammon (the commodification of being, leading to individualism, narcissism, depression and destruction)? He says there is a movement `in the West towards a stance against such spiritual bankruptcy and alerts us to several quantitative studies that indicate how the spirit is faring in Europe. Overall, research does show a decline in institutional Christianity and, while religious participation is not of itself an indicator of belief, it is of interest nonetheless to understanding social change and the social and personal significance of religious affiliation.

    In 2005, for example, the Christian Research charity conducted the English Church Census and published its findings (Quadrant, Sept 2006) under the title `Pulling Out of the Nosedive. It found cause for hope in the lower rate of decline of church congregations in England (from 2.7% per annum in the 1990s to 2.3% in 2005) in addition to the number of churches seeing growth (from 21% in 1998 to 34% in 2005). However, while almost three-quarters of the English population identified itself as being Christian (2001 Census) declining churches lost more than growing churches gained (half a million people still left the church between 1998 and 2005) resulting in a net loss (6.3% of the pop?¼ulation attend church on an average Sunday compared to 7.5% in 1998). In spite of such decline, Finnegan insists there are prophets, holders of a profound vision for the transformation of the world, and refers to studies (Barley, Hay and Hunt) that demonstrate clear spiritual growth and, in the case of the Italian study (Introvigne and Stark), of religious revival. He has written elsewhere that although `classic Christendom and its sacred canopy are dead (p.51) `the evidence points towards a shifting or recomposing of allegiances rather than any generalised demise (Milltown Studies, 39, 1997). I think this is why he entreats us, in The Audacity of Spirit, to resist at all costs an abstract spirituality and accept a faith-based spirituality that offers `a way of seeing life and a way of making sense of life ... a template for Christian religious and spiritual practice ... a graced way into the heart of the Church and the heart of the world to the heart of God (p131). In doing so, Finnegan is being true to the context of contemporary spirituality as that of postmodernism with its loss of the master-narratives. He knows that any study of spirituality is a study of concrete particularities arising from specific people in specific times and places, which invariably include specific religious traditions, rituals and practices. While the tendency is to segregate `religion and `spirituality there persists an unavoidable intertwining.


    I found his emphasis on contemplation as a means of mapping contemporary spirituality most welcome. Contemplation has been described (by William McNamara, a contemplative Carmelite) as `loving awareness, a `way of entering into immediate communion with reality. It is this long loving look at the real, rather than abstraction, that provides room for the necessary questions in reviewing spirituality today. But Finnegan urges caution when he says that the tendency to define spirituality in `inner, subjective, personal and experiential terms in opposition to outer, objective, organisational or institutional terms (pp. 34-35) blocks such a review. Paul Dearey, of the Centre for Spirituality Studies, has said that spirituality, rather than being a single reality, is `radically plural. Thus the need for contemplation, which is neither abstract nor individualistic, but allows for spiritual diversity in unity, so avoiding an individualistic understanding of spirit (which, Finnegan says, has little to offer) as well as blanket uniformity (which is neither desirable nor achievable). The call to respond to issues that have global concern then becomes possible.


    Poetics is Finnegans other key means of ensuring a spiritual diversity in unity as it brings together the discernment of truth with the enacting of that truth in the world. Much like the poetics of the scriptures (itself a literary text that utilises a well-developed poetics narrative, with poetry employed as a means of reciprocal communication between God and creation), it enables what is real yet beyond comprehension to be understood and grasped. A worry for him, though, in trying to get a handle on contemporary spirituality is its commodification and its ever moving away from its key quality as a prophetic sign of contradiction. Of further worry is the evident disjunction between spirituality and religion with the resultant loss of spiritual vitality. Spiritual amnesia is a world-maintaining agency that serves nothing but personal gratification, security and comfort. It should be our worry too, for the very life and soul of the planet is at stake. How can we live without soul, he asks, without awareness of our true being? Ultimately, poetics, as Finnegan argues consistently, is not simply an alternative hermeneutical method but a transformative praxis; something which has its effect in us. It is about how we choose to live and the decisions we make: `Audacity of spirit is manifested in audacious practices. It is lived, not just merely said (page 303). Throughout his work, what matters for Finnegan is the transformative quality of spirit on real lives. It is a clarion call to conversion, not only for the sake of ones own spiritual, material and psychological health, but for the wellbeing of community, society and the earth itself.

    As the book begins to conclude (in chapter 11), he moves towards his, by now, obvious goal: a postmodern spirituality giving greater respect and reverence to spirit and moving away from the restrictions imposed by words and images but which is wholly incarnational, spirit made flesh in real lives and real actions (p.388). This is a spirituality that enters into a passionate social solidarity with the present, engages with ecological consciousness and embraces ethical integrity. His final chapter (Reflections on a Spiritual Theology) offers us the means to enact this through the adoption of a Trinitarian spirituality that sees in the conversion, transformation and divinisation of the creature, the partaking in Gods loving care for all creation.
    The Audacity of Spirit is an expansive work requiring much from the reader as Finnegan attempts again and again to express something of the quality of what he has uncovered. The language of the prologue set the scene and called for the heart, tongue and ears of the poet in an attempt to glimpse something of the truth of spirit. Yes, it was felicitous and, oftentimes, brilliantly insightful, but a dictionary was brought to hand from the outset, nonetheless. Nothing quite manages to encapsulate the kaleidoscope of perceived truth - perhaps nothing can - but this is what made the book simultaneously intriguing and frustrating. It is almost as if in trying to describe the gift of metaphor, that `language to explore the awesome relationality of reality (p.120) and the keys to the windows of the soul, he overdoes the metaphors and on occasion I found myself asking for a leaner presentation. It is not due to any oversight that, at the bottom of page 154, after many pages of insightful images, he asks the question `what is spirituality? and again on page 237, `what, then, is spirit? As he says himself, of this most fundamental aspect of being human, the origins, functions and importance of which has been the focus of millennia of exploration, there is `no agreed cross-disciplinary or universally acceptable definition of our subject, and that the specific meaning of the word itself has become remarkably elusive and vague (p.155). I suppose this is understandable. The paradox of the Spirit, at once immanent yet transcendent, may also be said of spirituality: it is, as he says, both journey and destination, and at once a place of participation and solitude.

    It is helpful that Finnegan constantly puts before us the five factors he identifies as being significant to the changing face of spirituality and religion in the West - global capitalism, the failure of institutions, the superficiality of the consumer culture, the loss of the sacred and the vauntingly flauntingly conspicuous consumption of the secular West. These call for a spirituality whose broad parameters are inclusive of the ethical and ecumenical, the ecological and socio-political, the economic and the institutional if an effective response is to be mounted. But in giving so much weight to the `response and `evolution of spirituality in the face of such contemporary concerns, is Finnegan denigrating, I wonder, the formative aspect of spirituality with regard to transitional times and spaces?

    The Audacity of Spirit is a detailed work, and Finnegan gives attention to the etymology of concepts such as spirit and soul and their influences in many great disciplines, as well as the historical forces and key players at work in the shaping of their understanding and meaning through the ages. Each chapter concludes with a helpful set of themes and questions for further reflection, suggestions for further reading and the list of notes for that chanter. The Audacity of Spirit is a book that will be read and reread as one delves more deeply into the mystery that is spirituality. I have no doubt it is already becoming a fascinating guide for all those with an interest in the meaning of human existence as well as establishing itself as a valuable source for those embarking on future studies of spirituality.

    - The Furrow, April 2009

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The Audacity of Spirit